Saturday, June 29, 2013

San Gorgonio Mountain from Vivian Creek

Hiked: 6/28/2013
Distance: 17.4 miles round trip on trail
Summit Elevation: 11501'
Prominence: 8294'
Elevation Gain: 5461'
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 4.36
Round trip time: 10 hours 38 minutes
Recommended water: 204 oz.
Parking/Fees: Adventure Pass
Difficulty: Strenuous

Of the many routes to San Gorgonio mountain in the San Bernardino mountains, the Vivian Creek trail is the most popular and most direct. That also means it has the greatest elevation gain. This hike is often a trainer for Mt. Whitney and that is exactly why Rod and I chose to do it at this time. It offers serious distance and serious gain at high altitude. A great training hike. While there is normally water available at the camps along the way, recent reports suggested that water levels were low. I chose to pack in all the water (and gatorade) I needed, making my pack an outrageous 25 pounds to start. In fact, there was plenty of water at Vivian Creek camp and High Creek camp. We arrived at the trailhead at 7:30 AM and set out on the steep first section to Vivian Creek Camp.

Mill Creek crossing

There were a couple of campers set up at Vivian Creek Camp. As we crossed the creek, the insects and biting flies picked up. I brought a can of bug spray and it was applied liberally. Before High Creek camp, we were startled by a rattlesnake a few feet off the trail. Rod quickly moved down the trail away from it, while I got my phone out to grab a video. It was so well hidden that it is hard to see in the video. It wasn't hard to see once it started rattling. I went up the hill a little to give it plenty of room and we continued up the mountain.

Yucaipa Ridge

Rattlesnake surprise at 8800'

Rod heading toward High Creek camp

As we got higher on the trail, we got a good view of Dragon's Head and San Gorgonio in the distance.

Dragons Head Peak

First view of San Gorgonio in the distance

Pine tree growing sideways near the summit

The last section became steep again and finally turns right up the final ridge to the summit. Rod's heart rate was high, so we took frequent breaks. There were many golden-mantled ground squirrels, clearly accustomed to humans, looking for food. I snapped a picture of one in a fine summit pose. The views of San Jacinto, Saddleback, and even the San Gabriels were spectacular. I took a couple of panorama shots, but they turned out poorly because I didn't hold the camera level while panning. After entertaining the squirrels for a few minutes, eating the last of the food, and signing the register, we started back down. A fire was visible in the distance on the way down, and the police had closed highway 38. We had to find an alternate route to get back to I-10, but it was only a small delay. It appeared the fire was under control when we got back to I-10.

Approaching the summit

On the summit

Rod on the summit

San Gorgonio benchmark

Golden-mantled ground squirrel on the summit

Friday, June 21, 2013

Fish Canyon Falls via Van Tassel Ridge

Hiked: 6/21/2013
Distance: 8.8 miles round trip on trail
Summit Elevation: 2097' (high point on Van Tassel Ridge)
Elevation Gain: 3292'
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 2.63
Round trip time: 5 hours 20 minutes
Recommended water: 128 oz.
Parking/Fees: Free at Encanto Parkway dirt parking lot
Difficulty: Moderate

Note: As of 6/18/2014, The City of Azusa and Vulcan Materials Co. opened a new fenced trail that leads through the quarry to the canyon trail. The new trail is open full time so going over Van Tassel Ridge is no longer necessary.

Fish Canyon Falls is a popular destination close to Azusa/Duarte. There are two routes to the falls. One is a short, 4 mile round trip with about 700' of elevation gain, ideal for families but only available on a handful of Saturdays each year, as determined by the Vulcan Materials Company. The other route, the Van Tassel Ridge, is described in the Trails of the Angeles: 100 Hikes in the San Gabriels book by John Robinson, hike #49, as 8.5 miles with 3200' of gain, "tortuous" and "definitely not recommended." Of course, that is route I chose for several reasons. I preferred the challenge, and I also preferred going when I could avoid the crowds. To get to the trailhead, from the I-210 Foothill Freeway, traveling west: exit at Irwindale Avenue in Irwindale. Turn right and go 0.2 miles. Turn left on Foothill Blvd. and go 0.7 miles to Encanto Parkway. Turn right and the dirt parking lot is on the left in about 0.5 miles.

The Vulcan Materials Company runs the quarry that blocks access to the canyon. According to their web site, they are nation’s largest producer of construction aggregates—primarily crushed stone, sand, gravel—and a major producer of ready-mixed concrete. I find it interesting that pieces of the San Gabriels are spread around the country in concrete and building materials.

The trail leaves from the parking lot, follows a fence behind a horse stable, then switchbacks up the ridge. The first mile gain is about 950' with no shade. The next half mile is a jungle plateau that ends at a fence, followed by a half mile of 500' gain up a fire road to the top of Van Tassel Ridge. A trekking pole(s) are useful. Near the top is a hole in the fence where you leave Vulcan property. There is a small benchmark just outside the fence that reads "LA 00 ENG R", but it is not the high point on the ridge.

Peace cairn and arrow up the fire road

Mysterious benchmark, but not at the high point on the ridge

Next, you descend steeply 1150' into Fish Canyon where the trail merges with the easy main trail to the falls. This section of the trail looks little used. While the first section had litter (too much for me to pack out), the section descending into Fish Canyon was litter free. In many places, the grass, brush, and poison oak intrude into the trail. You are not bushwhacking through chaparral, but you do have to push through the obstructions. I wore long pants and was glad I did. Once you get to the main trail, it is easy going all the way to the falls with a fair bit of shade from the trees in the canyon. There are two stream crossings, but one was completely dry. There are also historical plaques along the way, most of them unfortunately vandalized.

Descending into Fish Canyon, main trail far below

Information plaque, vandalized

Plenty of shade on the main trail

Stream crossing without the water

When I reached the falls, I was sad to see it nearly dry. I came for the big three tiered waterfall, and all I got was a trickle. The main pool was not flowing into the lower pool, but both still had plenty of water. I sat on a rock over the lower pool and ate a few snacks and took a few photos, then headed back.

A trickle is all that's left of Fish Canyon Falls

Main pool below the falls

Lower pool

When I started back up the ridge on the way back, I found it unusually difficult. While steep, 1150' in about 1.25 miles, nowhere did I need to use my hands to climb and there was plenty of shade. There was nothing unusual about it, yet it seemed to wear me out. Maybe I stayed up too late, or had one too many glasses of wine the night before, or maybe I just had an off day, but I took several unplanned breaks heading up. When I started coming down again, I saw that my car was still alone in the parking lot. However, when I emerged from the brush into the parking lot, there was a green car parked right next to mine and one guy kind of loitering by the trailhead sign. We surprised each other. He asked me a few questions about the hike, then got in his car and left before I could even get my pack in my car. He was either casing the hike or casing my car. I decided it more likely he was casing my car, but no harm no foul.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Sea Cave at Dana Point

Hiked: 6/16/2013
Distance: 1.5 miles round trip
Summit Elevation: 0'
Elevation Gain: 0'
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 0.00
Round trip time: 45 minutes
Recommended water: 8 oz.
Parking/Fees: Free at Ocean Institute
Difficulty: Easy

Laguna Beach Tide Times and Charts

To get to the trailhead, use your favorite map program to get directions to the Ocean Institute in Dana Point. The full address is 24200 Dana Point Harbor Dr. Dana Point, CA 92629. There is usually ample free parking unless it is a holiday or some event is taking place. I discovered this cave at The large sea cave, carved out of the cliff, is best approached at low tide. I used the tide chart to determine the best time to go. If you go near high tide, you might have a hard time getting into the cave itself.

This is an atypical hike for me, and at 1.5 miles, barely qualifies as a hike. However, the cave is not obvious until you are on it, and the loose rocks require some attention. Because of the short distance, I didn't take anything with me but my GPS to get an accurate distance reading. Start behind the Ocean Institute by descending a set of fenced stairs leading down to the beach. If water is covering the bottom of the stairs, you probably came at high tide. You can still scramble down the rocks to the right, but may want to return near low tide.

There is a faint use trail that hugs the cliff most of the way. Watch your footing on the loose rocks, especially if they are wet, as a fall is likely to result in scrapes. I passed over a clam shell graveyard, and it was a crabfest around the cave.

Typical terrain all the way to the cave


About 0.75 miles from the start, there is a narrow entrance to the cave on the right in the cliff face. You can enter the fairly large cave and walk around with nice views out the larger entrance. You never know what kind of marine life you might see on any given trip.

Narrow entrance to the sea cave

View from inside the sea cave

Rocks outside the cave

See also: Sea Cave at Thousand Steps Beach

Friday, June 14, 2013

Sierra Peak

Hiked: 6/14/2013
Distance: 12.7 miles round trip on bike trail, dirt road, and firebreaks
Summit Elevation: 3045'
Prominence: 355'
Elevation Gain: 2600'
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 2.08
Round trip time: 5 hours 15 minutes
Recommended water: 128 oz.
Parking/Fees: Free to park on Green River Road
Difficulty: Moderate

Sierra Peak is the northern most peak in the Santa Ana Mountains and looms large over Highway 91, one of the busiest connecting Orange County and Riverside County. This was the final peak I needed to complete all 13 Sierra Club listed peaks in the Santa Ana Mountains.

To get to the parking area, take the 91 east toward Riverside, exit on Green River Road, turn left and loop around until you are going west on Green River Road. Follow the road to a dirt parking area on the right before the construction site. Park, then continue walking west along a paved bike path with the 91 on your left and the Santa Ana River on your right. After about a 1.4 miles, turn left and go under the 91.

Crossing under the 91 freeway

The trail splits into the Coal Canyon trail to the right and the Pipeline trail to the left. Noel and I followed the more direct Pipeline trail up and returned on the longer, but gentler, Coal Canyon trail. The Pipeline starts off as a wide dirt road that gains elevation moderately at first. There are a couple of sections in the last half of the trail where it turns into firebreaks that are steep and have loose dirt. Trekking pole(s) recommended. The Coal Canyon trail is 1.75 miles longer but is a smoothly graded road with milder inclines.

Noel was not a big fan of the firebreak

Horned lizard is at home on the firebreak

Once we got over the last firebreak, Sierra Peak finally came into view. There were two benchmarks on the summit and a crushed register can that appears to have been run over. We couldn't find a register. The views into Riverside County were great, and all the local big mountains were clear, despite some smog and lingering June gloom clouds.

Sierra benchmark, original placed 1928, replaced 1973

A poorly executed crow pose

On the way down, I spotted an interesting rock formation at the intersection of Leonard Road and Coal Canyon. There were also some great views into the Santa Ana back country. The GPS said there was a clay mine some distance off trail, but we didn't have time to investigate. Maybe on another trip, I can explore the canyon itself and the mine.

Rocks to explore on another trip

Very poisonous datura wrightii

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Chicken Spring Lake

Hiked: 6/8/2013
Distance: 15.2 miles round trip on trail and cross country
Summit Elevation: 12485' (highest point reached)
Elevation Gain: 2788'
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 2.23
Round trip time: 9 hours 30 minutes
Recommended water: 192 oz.
Parking/Fees: Free at Horseshoe Meadows
Difficulty: Strenuous (altitude)

I continue to look for training hikes for my first attempt at Mt. Whitney in July. My friend Rich, who has summited Mt. Whitney many times, suggested a training hike in the Sierras to get a feel for the terrain and to put in some high altitude work. He proposed a trip to Chicken Spring Lake, an 8.2 mile round trip starting from Horseshoe Meadows at an altitude of 9897'.

Horseshoe Meadows Trailhead

We arrived at the trailhead shortly before 9:00 AM and set out toward the lake, accompanied by his two Brittany Spaniels, Gracie and Dasher. The early part of the trail is flat and winds through large pinon pines. As you approach the pass, a series of switchbacks gain about 1300' providing great views back into Horseshoe Meadows. We passed a boy scout troop and at the pass, met the first of several PCT through hikers, charging her cell phone and camera batteries with a portable solar panel. Rich struck up a conversation with her, finding she had started the PCT in mid-April. A few minutes later we arrived at the lake and took our first break.

Rich at an early stream crossing, dogs getting a drink

Chicken Spring Lake

Chicken Spring Lake

At 11300', I was feeling fine without any symptoms of AMS. I prodded Rich to push on to Cirque Peak, an extra two miles (one way), 1600' of gain, and off trail. My goals were to increase my altitude and bag the closest peak. He agreed to continue with a little less enthusiasm. I had done some research on Cirque Peak, but there was not a lot of beta on it. I relied on poor resolution Google Earth images and the few trip reports I could find. I also failed to fill some water bottles at the lake. Trouble was coming.

We proceeded past the lake on the PCT looking for a way up to the south ridge leading to Cirque. My expectation was for a relatively mild track along the ridge once it was attained. The climb up to the ridge was a class 2 boulder scramble that didn't appear to change as we proceeded down the PCT. I suggested we ascend at one spot, but Rich thought there might be an easier way further down the trail. We parted at this point and agreed to meet back at the lake in 2.5 hours. I headed up over the boulders, resting when my heart rate got too rapid. As long as I maintained my heart rate and ascended at a steady pace, the altitude didn't seem to affect me. I was disappointed when I gained the ridge to find there would be no easy walk. It would be boulder scrambling all the way. Bad beta.

Boulder scramble up to the Cirque Peak ridge

Lingering snow on the ridge

I worked my way another half mile along the ridge, over several unnecessary bumps and around some lingering snow. I was at 12485' and finally had Cirque Peak in sight. To get there, I needed to drop down 100' to the final saddle, then up 500', all over boulders and sand. It had taken me much longer than I expected to get to this point, and a water check told me I didn't have enough to make it without risking serious dehydration on return. I struggled with the decision to continue or turn back, but eventually started back.

Cirque Peak in sight, half a mile and half a million boulders away

Whitney Meadows from the Cirque Peak ridge

As I was returning, I saw Rich coming up the ridge having found an easier path than mine. I told him I was low on water and wanted to return. We both agreed to return on the easier route he found. He had dropped his pack 15 minutes earlier on a boulder, not wanting to carry it up the ridge. When we returned to where he thought he left it, it wasn't there. We split up to search along the side of the ridge for his pack, zig zagging while slowly descending. The entire side of the mountain looked the same, like a ten thousand boulder jigsaw puzzle. We were off trail at 12300' and a good 7 miles from the trailhead. It was getting late in the afternoon, I had less than 3 bottles of water and Rich now had none. He also had none for his two Brittany Spaniels that were along on the hike and getting tired and hot. Since he drove to the trailhead, I started to get a twinge of panic, suspecting that his keys were in the pack and that we might be spending the night on the mountain if we couldn't find his pack.

Twenty minutes later, we met up again and I asked him if he had his keys. To my relief, he said he did, though he desperately wanted to retrieve the pack which had a lot of good equipment in it and some irreplaceable papers. After 45 more minutes of searching, we gave up and started down the mountain. The dogs were panting hard and seeking every bit of shade they could find. Back on the PCT, we met a through hiker named "River" who was moved by the plight of the dogs and donated a bottle of water to keep them going. It was enough for the dogs to make it back to the lake to hydrate and cool off. Once we got back to the lake, it was an uneventful descent back to the parking lot.

I don't think Cirque Peak gets much traffic, so the chances of another hiker finding the pack are probably remote. When I got home, I sent Rich a Google Earth image of my track and the GPS coordinates of the spot we first met. He is planning a search and rescue mission in a couple of weeks to find his pack.

Close up of the hunt for the missing pack